Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.
Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.
It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.
Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.
Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.